For a time Theodore H. White appeared destined to play a familiar American role. He was another of our Icarus types whose fate it was to fly too high, too fast, only to crash in flames. Poor White. The latest in our disintegration-of-talent line that runs through such dissimilar artists as Scott Fitzgerald and Elvis Presley. Another burnt-out case. Thus, anyway, went the critical chorus raised against him in recent years.

Not that White in any way resembles the mythic Icarus. Teddy White is a portly little guy, full of smiles and energy, who bounds on and off American presidential campaign planes and buses with unexcelled zest. He is an original, creator of his own legend. His first book on "the making of the president," a narrative of the 1960 campaign, was an instant critical and commercial success. It won the Pulitzer Prize, greatly influenced political reporters and candidates of the day, became a staple in political science courses, and was combed for its insights by the army of consultants, pollsters, and other king-makers who began to fashion another thriving mass-production industry, this one transforming the nature of the American political process.

In the evolution of our politics from primitive to modern, Teddy White forged a place all his own.

But as campaign followed campaign, and book followed book, it seemed White had lost his way. The noble tone and air of great purpose with which he invested his retelling of the quadrennial drama became less suited to the reality of the American political spectacle.

Instead of noble purpose, the political process offered up a succession of horrors. Assassinations, wars, riots and corruption emanating from the highest office afflicted the country. Cynicism and distrust affected the way citizens viewed their political leaders. And Teddy White, the troubador of American presidential politics, no longer stood alone in his field.

New competitors, many borrowing White's narrative historical method, entered the lists against him. Publishers accelerated their deadlines and rushed to be first in the lucrative book club lotteries. The market was glutted. Increasingly, White found his work disparaged, dismissed, and sometimes regarded as passe.

The rap against him, often repeated prublicly and privately, especially among the younger, post-Watergate group of hard-eyed journalists, was as follows:

He was too romantic, too trusting, too unrealistic, too close to the politicians he covered. He could see no evil. He could not bring himself to criticize the figures he glamorized. He lacked toughness. He was responsible for creating myths of monumental public figures (the Kennedy Camelot legend sprang first from his writing) that misled the public.

Now White appears again with another, and he says the final, in his "Making of the President" series. His aim this time is to put the ultimate what-it-all-means stamp on the last tortuous generation of American presidential making, last tortuous generation of American presidential making, and breaking. No small undertaking, to be sure, but White never has been accused of failing to address great themes.

In his opening words, he sounds an uncertain trumpet: "There is always that first question in telling any story-- where to begin?" To this tentativeness is added a touch of verbosity. He calls his initial segment "Dialogue with the Reader by way of a Preface." As you read on, this sense of shadow-boxing with words, of failing to address and delineate crisply his subject increases:

"This time it was particularly important to me to pick the proper beginning. The campaign of 1980 would be the last, I promised myself, in a series of stories about American politics that I had begun in l960. The plan, back then. . . . "

After similar musings out loud, and thrashings around in search of his subject, he stumbles back on his initial question: "Thus, insistently: where to begin?" And again, three pages later: "Where would one begin a book about a nation that questioned its own beliefs?"

Already you can see the White deprecators nodding in mock-sadness about the obvious sputterings of the old pro now so clearly in decline. Then, abruptly, you pass through the early false starts and find yourself at the real beginning. Now you are in the hands of a superb storyteller fully in command of his material, writing at the peak of his powers, producing his best work, and one I believe will be his monument.

From his brilliant opening sketch describing the seizing of the American hostages in Iran, the perfect prelude to set the stage for his last presidential campaign in l980, White takes the reader on a memorable journey that moves back and forth over the last 24 years of U. S. history. He offers a coherent, thoughtful, and provocative look at the stunning series of changes, whether political, economic, or social, that have profoundly affected the nature and quality of American life, to say nothing of its presidential politics.

Among our contemporary writers none better handles the use of demographic data. Few match his ability to sketch, cleanly and tellingly, the characters he observes on the passing campaign caravans.

His achievement here, though, rests on much more than these skills.

White gives us a welcome perspective from which to view the movements that have transformed not only our politics but our country since the first campaign he observed, the reelection of Dwight D. Eisenhower in l956.

He describes the great power shift, still underway, from Northeast to South/Southwest and West, with Texas, which has witnessed "a wrenching of a people from its past," and California, "the place of strangers," emerging as new poles of national political influence; the great flow of ideas and the clashing of ideologies, old and new, that have both reinforced American principles of equality and liberty and paradoxically "led to the definition of groups, by age and sex, by color and race, and each group spawned other groups, splintering the country instead of opening it"; the advent of the age of television, "the most unsettling event in Western society since the invention of printing," a force both revolutionary and bewildering and one which "nationalized public opinion, (and which) fused the federal Union into an audience."

After examining, compellingly, the impact for good and ill of the Great Society and the scourge of the Great Inflation which still imperils the country, White addresses changes that continue to bedevil the political process. Principal among them are the rise of the image-makers as part of the new all-encompassing political industry come to flower with TV, the accompanying endless primary campaigns and the ascendancy of media influence over events.

In the end, after carrying us up to the present fateful budget deliberations that promise to define the success or failure of the Reagan presidency, he returns to his beginning --with questions. But here is no faltering. He raises one after another of crucial unknowns: about the soundness of the American economy, about its relation to other societies, about the implications of international trade wars, declining resources, and lost jobs. He asks: "How much of the old American abundance can be shared with a world so long encouraged to carve its piece out of it?"

He questions NATO and our European alliance, and wonders: "Is there any continuing reason to burden America with the maintenance of so large a corps of hostages (our troops and weaponry on their soil) to the whimsies of European politics?"

About the United Nations, he asks similarly: "Is it a useful forum for peace, or a functionaries's palace? . . . Is it useful to persist in America's role as chief policeman in the world's quarrels? What is it we must defend--and what should be defended by others?"

He raises questions, of course, about our political process. Among them, he asks: How should our political system be managed "in an age of special interests, professional mercenaries, and television"? What should be the powers of the presidency? How can civility, indeed livability, be returned to our cities which "are becoming a despair of our civilization"? What about the tormenting question of immigration, "only now rising from the murmurings of fear to the level of political discussion"?

Ultimately, he raises the great question about our ability to effectively govern ourselves. He broods about the example of Rome. Cicero's republic, he recalls, for all its reach and power, was successful because it was a community where civility reigned and all lived peacefully together. "But Cicero's Rome could not pass on the heritage of its past to the people of its future. Thus, Cicero failed, and a few years later his head was cut off as he tried to flee a Rome that could no longer govern itself."

Coming from Teddy White, traditionally the happy optimist of our politics, that's an uncommonly gloomy thought. But then this is an uncommonly fine book, and one that sets new standards for our political soothsayers, now so many in number just as they were so few when White first began writing his books.

I, for one, finished his account by recalling the words Stephen Vincent Benet addressed to Scott Fitzgerald's critics when Fitzgerald's unfinished fragment, The Last Tycoon, was published posthumously. "You can take your hats off now, gentlemen, and I think perhaps you had better. This is not a legend, this is a reputation--and, seen in perspective, it may well be one of the most secure reputations of our time."